SoCal Substance

Even hobbling after knee replacement surgery, choreographer Jean Isaacs is charging ahead with new projects.



Her It Age and Other Dances

Danspace Project

131 E. 10th St. at Second Ave.

Jan. 11-13 8:30 p.m.

$15-$20; 212-674-8194

Even hobbling after knee replacement surgery, choreographer Jean Isaacs is charging ahead with new projects. Isaacs got the new knee in November. In December, she moved her San Diego Dance Theater into Dance Place San Diego, a $4.8 million, 11-studio facility that just opened in a former Navy building.

And she's making a new work, “Her It Age,” for her eight-member company's show at Danspace Project January 11-13. Using text from the 62-year-old dancemaker's journals, the piece is a meditation on aging and beauty, as well as a look back at first-generation Italian immigrants in Isaacs' family.

“As I'm thinking about my childhood and what it was like growing up, it has a patina of reflection,” Isaacs said. “My father spoke very broken English. He was a millworker in Mansfield, Massachusetts. I did a lot of reading, and it helped me understand what it was like growing up-the dis-ease or ambivalence in people of my generation whose families were more comfortable speaking Italian. And in New England, the class stuff, you feel it more than you do in California.”

Not that Isaacs, known for her acerbic intelligence, is wallowing in nostalgia. “Her It Age” isn't as goofy as an Italian piece she did 30 years ago, in which she cooked spaghetti and turned a tablecloth into a mantle for the Virgin Mary. But, true to her mix-it-up aesthetic, she's throwing in bouncy 1950's pop songs and lists of “Things I Like about Italians,” along with somber Pablo Casals cello music. In a recent rehearsal, her dancers mugged and clowned, then fluidly shifted to a passage of heart-catching poignancy.

While it's chancy to nominate any one person as the face of modern dance in San Diego, Isaacs has racked up the most cumulative visibility as an artist, organizer, and teacher. In her 36 years in the city, she's started two companies-Three's Company and Isaacs/McCaleb-launched a Lo-Tec concert series that ran for 20 years, and taught at the University of California-San Diego and in the community. She became director of the 34-year-old San Diego Dance Theater in 1997.

She's collaborated on theatrical productions, for instance, two Charles Mee plays-“Big Love,” shown at BAM in 2001 and “Wintertime” at La Jolla Playhouse in 2002. And she's commissioned restagings of dances by Mary Anthony and Rui Horta and an original piece by one of her former students, Jeffrey Gerodias.

Gerodias, an Ailey dancer for 10 years, made the first two parts of “Giallo per Quatro” for Isaacs two years ago and added a third section that will premiere at Danspace. The quartet, which begins with Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata,” is the first professional commission for Gerodias, who now teaches at CalArts.

Isaacs' Danspace show also features “Cheers,” a tense, moody duet to a Damian Rice song about a failed relationship, and “Three Quartets and More” to a driving Steve Reich score.

An artist-activist, Isaacs has pushed to get dance into the public eye in a city that's strong on theater and sports. She founded the San Diego Dance Alliance and created the high-profile “Trolley Dances.” The annual “Trolley Dances” combines an outing on the red cars of San Diego's light rail system with some half-dozen short dances; many are by guest artists, including another of Isaac's former students, Monica Bill Barnes.

In Isaacs' latest venture, San Diego Dance Theater is joining Malashock Dance and San Diego Ballet as resident companies at Dance Place San Diego. The 23,000-square-foot building is part of a complex at a former Naval Training Center dedicated to the arts, culture, science, and technology.

The dance building, a first for San Diego, represents a big leap for the city and for Isaacs. She's taking on $1500 a month in rent, after operating San Diego Dance Theater out of her home, and starting a company school. In June, she plans to retire from UC-San Diego and focus on the company and school. “It's just the time to get going with one more big project,” she said.

Then there's the aging issue. In mid-December, a month after her surgery, Isaacs sounded discouraged that she hadn't yet bounced back. As her company member-and daughter-Liv Isaacs-Nollet put it, “It's a realization like wow, my mom is human. She's found out she isn't Superwoman all the time.”

The day after Christmas, however, Isaacs was doing her usual juggling act-being involved in an all-day Dance Place open house, directing a rehearsal, and at the same time tucking a cell phone under her curtain of dark brown hair as she lined up a last-minute replacement for a dancer who'd torn his Achilles tendon. When she made comments to the dancers, however, her voice was calm.

“She's so beautiful,” said an artist-friend watching the rehearsal with me. “I want to paint her.”